The French house untouched for 100 years
- 18 January 2011
- From the section Europe
A late 19th Century town-house in central France that was sealed up for more than 100 years has finally been opened to the public in accordance with its owner's last wishes.
Louis Mantin was an aesthete and gentleman of leisure who bequeathed his opulent home to the town of Moulins on condition that a century later it be a museum.
After he died in 1905, the mansion was closed up and fell into dilapidation. Now thanks to a 3.5m euro ($4.7m; £2.9m) refit funded by local authorities, it has been returned to its original pristine state.
The result is a remarkable time-capsule, combining rich fin-de-siecle furnishings, archaeological curios, skulls and other Masonic paraphernalia, a collection of stuffed birds, as well as the latest domestic gadgets such as electricity and a flushing loo.
Life of pleasure
Born in Moulins in 1851, Mantin had an undistinguished career as a civil servant, but at the age of 42, he inherited a fortune from his father and thenceforth dedicated his life to pleasure, science and the arts.
First of all he had his mansion constructed in the centre of Moulins on the site of a former palace of the dukes of Bourbon, the local rulers who were heirs to the French and Spanish royal houses.
Then he decorated the house with imported tapestries, paintings and porcelain.
He commissioned sculptures and wood-carvings, and on the top floor installed his personal museum of Egyptian relics, Neolithic oil-lamps, prehistoric flints and medieval locks and keys.
Mantin only had a few years to indulge his aesthetic fantasies. Knowing that his death was approaching, he made a will in which he made sure his treasured house would be saved.
"In the will, he says that he wants the people of Moulins in 100 years time to be able to see what was the life of a cultured gentleman of his day," said assistant curator Maud Leyoudec.
"A bachelor with no children, he was obsessed with death and the passage of time. It was his way of becoming eternal."
Some confusion surrounds the exact terms of the will.
According to local people, Mantin specifically said that the house should be locked up for a century and then opened up to the public.
However the truth is less sensational, if only slightly.
In fact, Mantin stipulated simply that in 100 years time the mansion should be a museum. He said nothing about what should happen in between.
The fact that the house was totally abandoned was thus not a predetermined condition - it was just what actually took place.
"The house was gradually forgotten by the world. But not by the people of Moulins," said Mantin's great-niece Isabelle de Chavagnac.
"Here everybody was waiting for the day when a 100 years would have passed and the house would be opened once again. It is odd how the collective memory of a place never dies."
Curiously it was Isabelle de Chavagnac - as one of Mantin's last known descendants - who played a key role in getting the house re-opened.
Under the will, the house would have reverted to her had it not been turned into a museum once the century had passed.
She had no desire to take the possession of the house. Quite the contrary, she wanted Mantin's wishes to be fulfilled.
But by threatening to exercise her right in law to take back the mansion, she forced the local authorities to act. They found the money to renovate, and the house opened at the end of 2010.
Five years late, but no-one is counting.